Philadelphia's Live Arts and Fringe Festival, which runs through September 17th, is one of the area's premiere theater festivals every year, offering both big budget and small, often controversial, independent productions.
One of these smaller productions, Heavy Metal Dance, produced by Philadelphia-based theater company Tribe of Fools, courageously offers a challenge against rigid definitions of masculinity through the story of Timmy Bagley, played by actor and co-director Terry Brennan, who comes from a traditional Catholic Italian family in South Philadelphia and, in the wake of his father's death, turns to dance in a way that alienates those around him.
The play, which was originally performed as a ten-minute production in 2006 for Philadelphia's SPARK Festival, was expanded beginning in January 2011 to a 75-minute production. In its present form, the plays begins in the past, with Timmy giving a eulogy at his father's funeral and, through a rotating set piece, shifts to present scenes where he interacts with his best friend Vincenzo, played by Peter Smith, and his new girlfriend Viola, played by Janice Rowland, who respond harshly to his embrace of dance by calling him "gay" and a "fag."
But rather than maintaining a strictly serious one, these present scenes establish the masculine "guido" stereotype almost to caricature, generating moments of light hearted, physical theatricality that had the audience bursting into laughter. While some of the scenes between Timmy and Vincenzo suffer from being jarringly, even uncomfortably, over-the-top, the overall play on stereotypes forces the audience members to confront both their own preconceived notions of identity and laugh when these notions seem absurd.
Initially the shifts between the serious and insightful observations at the funeral and the physical theater between characters seemed ineffective, but as the play builds the story, uncovering the relationship between Timmy and his father, these shifts become one of the play's greatest assets. Timmy, we come to find, has structured his own quest for identity, and has confronted traditional understandings of masculine identity, through a secret he learned about his father.
This secret, or at least the part we learn about, plays out first in the eulogy and then is transferred either into a conflict of identity between characters or directly through the dance moves, which come as one of the core challenges to rigid definitions of masculinity.
But the play is most potent, and naturally controversial, in its unabashed examination of the term fag. In asking Brennan and Tim Popp, the only gay cast member who plays the only (openly) gay character of the play, about the use of fag, it is clear they struggled with including the slur but ultimately chose to confront its usage carefully and with great intention, to elevate the central message of the play. This message is that the ideal images of masculinity that men break out of are met with violence, which can be manifest physically or through the use of slurs like fag.
Popp in particular spoke to the fact that Brennan himself, who grew up as a Midwest theater kid, was bullied by being called a fag, initial drafts of the play featured the term much less prominently and the character that he plays, James, did not openly announce his sexuality. His desire to reach out to Brennan about using fag stemmed from what he felt was a particularly painful experience that most gay men have with the term that other men simply do not have.
Two particular scenes where homosexuality is confronted most vocally stand out for me. One of the most unexpectedly touching moments is created when Timmy recounts a story at the eulogy of how he used the slur against one of his father's friends who ordered a "fruity" beer at the bar and his father chastised him for it. Another moment occurs when Timmy and James meet in the gym and James dramatically announces he is gay. The two continue in a physically close dance-off that bristles with unspoken (and to me, erotic) tension that could not have been created if James' sexuality was itself unspoken.
While Jay Wojnarowski, who is Tribe of Fools Artistic Director and a writer of the play, spoke to the fact that he understands that by simply using the term fag, he knows some people will choose not to see the play, it seems clear that in not openly addressing the slur, the play would be dishonest to how society treats those who break from these limited definitions of masculinity, and lose its ability to reach out both to gay and straight audiences in an intellectually probing way.
Heavy Metal Dance Fag occasionally stumbles in overemphasizing stereotypes, and suffers from some underdeveloped characters in a slim 75 minute run time. But it is guided by a rare humor and playfulness, while it confronts the topical message that restrictive definitions of masculinity shame all who fall outside of its boundaries into silence, that make it highly recommended for all audiences.
For more information on when and when the screenings are, please visit the Live Arts and Fringe Festival website.